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Café au Lait vs Latte: What’s the Difference?

caffe au lait vs latte

There are so many ways to drink coffee. Sometimes we know just what we want, and sometimes it’s hard to choose. This choice is made even harder when you don’t know what every drink on the menu is, let alone how it’s made.

An example of one of these drinks is a café au lait. This creamy drink originated in France and is more popular in Europe than in the U.S., where lattes seem to be a popular choice. So what exactly is a café au lait, and what makes it different from a latte?

RELATED READ: Your complete guide to the 21 different types of espresso drinks.

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What’s a Latte?

A latte starts with fresh-brewed espresso shots, and then steamed milk is added, often with a light layer of foam on the top. This drink became popular because it offers the bold espresso flavor people want, but with a creamy, smooth flavor from the milk.

how to make a latte

People like to customize their coffee, which is the reason lattes became even more popular. There are many flavors available to add to your latte for a personal touch, like peppermint and caramel.

RELATED READ: See our breakdown of the best automatic latte makers in 2020 here.

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What’s a Café au Lait?

Café au lait translates to “coffee with milk” in French, and that is exactly what it is. To make this drink, you start with hot, strong coffee, typically made with a drip coffee machine or a French press. This fills the bottom half of the cup, and then hot milk fills the rest. The milk in this drink is always hot, or else it becomes a different drink called “white coffee.”

American café au lait
Image credit: faungg on Flickr, licensed under CC 2.0

What’s an American Café au Lait?

There is also an American version of café au lait that originated in the most French part of the U.S., New Orleans. This version is unique for a few reasons, the main one being the addition of chicory in the coffee. Chicory is a plant that has a very woody taste. This gives the drink an extremely distinct flavor. The milk in this version isn’t steamed, but scalded, or heated right up to the boiling point. The last reason this version is different is that it’s usually served with a sweet treat called a beignet. This is a ball of fried dough coated with powdered sugar, a French version of a donut.

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Highlighting the Differences

Though both café au laits and lattes are made with milk, they’re different from each other for a few reasons. It all comes back to the general makeup of the drink.

A latte is made with bold espresso, while a café au lait uses strong coffee. Lattes have more milk and a little bit of foam and may be made with a wide range of flavors. Café au laits are typically served straight, though the American version adds chicory.

Latte
  • Made with bold espresso and lots of steamed milk
  • Topped with microfoam
  • May be flavored
Café au Lait
  • Made with strong coffee and hot milk
  • Typically served straight
  • American version has chicory

Now you know what lattes and café au laits are and how they differ. Why not try a new latte flavor or head down to New Orleans for an American café au lait? Enjoy your new coffee discoveries!

RELATED READING: What’s the difference between frothed and steamed milk?

Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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